Empathy & Technology: the odd couple

At first glance, a concept like ’empathy’ might seem quite distant from technologies such as wearables and augmented reality. Recently, understanding empathy has shifted our perspective on the use technology and can help make products and services more useful, effective and intuitive.

What is empathy?

Empathy comes from two Greek words ‘em’ (in-) and ‘pathos’ (-feeling), meaning the ability to understand other people’s feelings or metaphorically speaking the ability to be in someone else’ shoes. It is often get confused with ‘sympathy’, forming from ‘sun‘ (with-) and ‘pathos ‘(-feeling), meaning feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

For example, to be sympathetic to a person with a vision impairment, would be to feel pity for the difficulties of living without vision. In contrast, empathy goes deeper. Developing empathy enables you to understand how a person feels about an impairment and accessibility challenges.  At the Enabled by Design hackathon earlier this year, we wore blindfolds, navigated the room on crutches and experienced distractions from background noise; all experiences which gave us a greater degree of empathy for others.

Why is it important?

As human beings, we tend to layer experiences with our own views and assumptions, sometimes without realising it. How often do assume everyone has the same difficulties day to day? For example, did the designer of this ticket vending machine think about their average commuter: one who is stressed out, running late for the train, having no small change and his credit card buried somewhere in the backpack and desperately need to complete the purchase within one minute?

How to develop empathy?

The easiest way to empathise with someone is to have experienced the same thing yourself (such as buying a train ticket, booking a trip with a travel agent or using crutches) and take into account their social and physical condition. While understanding the context of these experiences is indispensable, the true power is using imagination. Consider the user’s social connections, their physical conditions, their upbringing and other aspects of their life which may impact the way they behave. Is your user a mother, juggling with two small children, a heavy pram trying to board a crowded narrowed airplane? Is your TV remote control user an 80 year old gentleman with dexterity problems who has trouble with small buttons and can’t see very well in the dark?

Not everything can be experienced first hand. For example, it is almost impossible for a designer to fully experience what it’s like to have cerebral palsy, or a man to experience pregnancy and birth, or someone from a peaceful country to feel what it’s like to be in a war zone. Other times, we’re simply limited by our own moral threshold (for example, an avid non-smoker will find it challenging to conduct research on heavy smokers). Thankfully, we can rely on storytelling and our own imagination to make the leap.

Below is a hierarchy of research methods used to obtain empathy. No one method is exclusive from others, the best approach is to combine them as much as you can to give you a rich and deep understanding of the subject matter.

  1. Role play your user: literally putting yourself in the shoes of the user. Walk blindfolded for a day to experience vision impaired, or the extreme example like participants in the SBS series ‘Go Back Where You Came From‘ – living the life of a refugee themselves.
  2. Shadow your user and conduct contextual inquiry: this means going to where your users use the product, whether it’s out in the oil field, in the factory floor, in an office environment or in an ambulance, and ask them questions about the product or software at their actual point of use.
  3. Talk to your users: when shadowing is not possible, you sit down and interview your user in a lab or in a workshop to draw out their goals, their pain points and frustrations.
  4. Desk research: looking at past research, survey data or analytics, reading blog posts, articles, watching films or YouTube clips by/about a particular group of users you’re researching can also help you empathise with your users. This is the way most companies currently conduct user research, but it is certainly not good enough. Desk research should be used ideally to validate your findings in the field research.

Emerging technologies, new ways to develop empathy

Just like everything else, changes in technology open up new ways for us to do research and achieve empathy. Let’s think for a minute about how the potential of wearable technology and augmented reality can help us collect data and simulate first hand experience of our users. In a future project designing for people with MS (Multiple Sclerosis), you can give your research subject a pair of Google Glass to record a day in her life in a non-intrusive way. The video can then be viewed either just on a screen, or even better, you can immerse yourself in the experience by watching it through an Occulus Rift virtual reality headset. Imagine how much qualitative data, subtle nuances and insights you’ll collate. Most of them would have been missed with traditional research methods.

We invite you to join us for our workshop for Sydney Design, on 21st August, 2014:  Being John Malkovich: what is the future of research with wearable technology: Explore the way wearable technology is opening up new paths for collecting data but is also impacting the role of the researcher with the Ripple Effect Group team through an interactive and participatory design workshop.